Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says that without focusing on basic city services in 2020, any goodwill that’s been built up means nothing.
“I can say Kansas City is on a roll, it has momentum ... until the cows come home,” Lucas told KCUR ahead of Wednesday’s State of the City address. “But if people are dying, if people are sick, if people have criminal sentences that cast a scarlet letter on their future and their opportunities, then we’re not being the city that we should be.”
Laying out his vision, Lucas repeated the word equity in explaining his biggest priorities: addressing violent crime, increasing the city’s stock of affordable housing and eliminating bus fares — as well as fixing those vile potholes.
Fifth District Councilman Lee Barnes, Jr., who is serving his second term, called the mayor's plan ambitious, but feasible. The council begins budget negotiations Thursday.
"It's going to take a stretch, but that's what we're here to do. We're here to push the envelope as far as we can," Barnes said.
Lucas has had a whirlwind six months as mayor. He and the city council have passed gun reform measures, a tenants’ bill of rights, granted millions in tax incentives and promised free bus fare. But there’s more to come in 2020, according to his speech.
Lucas has repeatedly said reducing violent crime is his top priority. Already this year, Kansas City police say there have been 19 homicides — more than at this time last year and in 2017, which ended up being one of Kansas City’s most violent in a quarter-century.
In a sober moment before Wednesday’s audience at Center High School in south Kansas City, Lucas listed the name of every person who has been killed so far this year, most due to shootings.
“Each fatal victim — each living victim — has a story, has a family and has an impact on our community,” Lucas said.
In addition to more police officers and social workers, Lucas wants to add two probation officers to enforce the city’s new ordinances meant to keep guns from minors and suspected domestic abusers.
He also pledged to follow through on a campaign promise to pardon marijuana possession or paraphernalia convictions that happened in Kansas City; his office will post an application for those pardons online.
Last year was widely regarded as one of the worst years for potholes in Kansas City, but public works officials say this year is looking worse.
That’s why Lucas said he asked the city manager to appoint a position — the “pothole czar” — to prioritize roads in need of attention, coordinate city departments and tell the public and the city council about how money the city is spending.
The current pothole situation, Lucas said, is in part because of past mismanagement of funds.
“In some cases, streets with decades of neglect continue to be ignored,” he said, “while in other situations, newly repaved streets feature new maintenance problems.”
Lucas is also proposing an increase for the street resurfacing program, which the city council gave more money to in the current 2019-2020 budget.
Kansas City Public Works spokeswoman Maggie Green told KCUR earlier this week that in addition to money to repave streets, the agency also needs short-term funding to help catch up with patching potholes.
Another of Lucas’ campaign priorities has followed him into office: increasing the city’s stock of affordable housing.
He promised to better leverage federal money and existing taxpayer-supported funds, like the Central City Economic Development Sales Tax, and said he wouldn’t add new taxes for affordable housing.
Part of his push will come at the expense (at least $500,000, according to Lucas) of the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, which helps broker tax incentive deals for development.
In the last six months, several projects, including a high-rise office tower with no tenants and a new headquarters for financial services company Waddell & Reed, have received generous tax incentives to build downtown. They’re projects that the mayor has said he wants to avoid, though they came during his tenure.
Residents can expect a “significant change” to how the city approaches economic development, Lucas said Wednesday, so that new projects and incentives are distributed equitably.
“Because, my friends, east-side economic development isn’t just a strip mall or a three-story building,” he said. “It’s providing new affordable housing for families, jobs for people in our neighborhoods and funds to help support rehabilitation of our single-family housing stock in mature, working-class neighborhoods.”
James Owens, who attended the speech with some members of KC Tenants advocacy group, said he was pleased with the mayor's committment to housing overall, but wanted to hear a pledge to create an Office of the Tenant Advocate to help even the power balance between tenants and landlords. It was one of the requests included in the KC Tenants Bill of Rights, which the council passed late last year.
"He's been amazingly open with us to this point but we are going to hold his feet to the fire until we see it in writing." Owens said. "This is our money, this is for our office."
Goodbye bus fares
While Kansas City wants to be the first major metro to get rid of bus fares, it must find a way to pay for it.
Initially, transit officials said going fare-free would cost about $8 million — roughly the amount the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority takes in annually from fares.
Lucas’ proposed budget includes $4.8 million for the initiative, as well up to $1 million from insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield just for the first year. But several agencies will see budget cuts, including Visit KC, the Office of Cultural and Creative Services and the Kansas City Film Office.
The mayor said cost-savings within the KCATA will make up the remaining $2.2 million, but didn’t provide specifics.
Robbie Makinen, who heads the KCATA, said he appreciates the mayor’s leadership on this initiative and is “optimistic” that the city council will follow through on their “unanimous commitment.”
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that Blue Cross Blue Shield is willing to put in up to $1 million for the first year of the zero-fare bus program, not $1 million annually.
Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and the city hall reporter for KCUR 89.3 Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.